“Indian startup ecosystem has evolved dynamically”

Dr N. Madhusudhana Rao, Chief Executive Officer, Atal Incubation Centre – Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology, Hyderabad shares his thoughts on completion of five years of inception, initiatives, achievements, startup ecosystem and much more

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Prior to his current role, Dr. N. Madhusudhana Rao had an illustrious career as the Chief Scientist at CSIR-CCMB. He also served as the coordinator of the CSIR network program on nanomaterials and nanodevices, involving several institutions. A PhD in Biochemistry from National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, Dr Rao also holds a Master’ in Agriculture from Punjab. He has a rich career in protein engineering and cell biology of gene delivery. Dr Rao’s lab has developed, using in vitro evolution methods, a number of thermostable proteins.
In an exclusive interview, Dr N. Madhusudhana Rao, Chief Executive Officer, Atal Incubation Centre – Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology, Hyderabad shares his thoughts on completion of five years of inception, initiatives, achievements, startup ecoystem and much more.

BV LogoCongratulations on the completion of 5 years of AIC-CCMB. Please take us through your foundational years and the long-term objectives that were set for the AIC-CCMB. 
The journey of the Atal Incubation Centre – Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (AIC-CCMB) at CSIR -– Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) is remarkable in more ways than one. We began in 2017 by establishing AIC-CCMB with the support of the Atal Innovation Mission (AIM) of the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog). We were honoured to be one of the first 10 Atal Incubation Centres (AICs) in India at the time.
Being a national research institute with a rich history of pioneering research, CCMB has always promoted translational research, especially by industry. One of the significant limitations of private novel research is the availability of lab facilities, access to mentors and funding. The same is critical for any startups in healthcare as well, especially early stage startups who have some leads but need to develop a proof of concept to take it further. Our objective from the very beginning has been to support such startups and innovators, especially from the research community. Today, in our fifth year of enabling India’s bio-economy, we are focusing on accelerating life science technologies with a strong focus on indigenization and affordable healthcare under the Atmanirbhar Bharat mission.
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Major initiatives of the AIC-CCMB in promoting bioscience-related startups in India and the progress so far?
Primarily, most bioscience-related startups consider us among the top 5 incubators for robust industry-academia collaborations and plug & play wet research facilities.  One of our main USPs is flexibility in terms of space a startup can take from us, ranging from 100 sq ft to 900 sq ft. Such flexibility is necessary to support very early stage, bootstrapped startups. Here they get access to shared industry-standard equipment, research facilities, workstations, meeting pods, and other amenities from the host organisation, such as cafeterias, conference rooms, animal house facilities, a library, a guest house, etc.  We also facilitate affiliations with reputed labs, research institutes, industries and local Government.
We pride ourselves that we work like a sandbox, where startups can test and trial-run their technologies with our support in a low-risk environment. They can leverage our high impact ecosystem of policy makers, technical and business mentors, alumni, fund providers, regulatory & IP experts and consultants Immersion is key to identifying markets, so AIC-CCMB conducts two national programs called BIRAC’s SPARSH Fellowship program and TIDE 2.0 program by MeitY Startup Hub (MSH). Our other initiative with Humane Society International – India, the Center for Predictive Human Model Systems (CPHMS), is India’s first scientific and policy think-tank dedicated to enabling human relevant, non-animal technologies in clinical and biomedical research in India.

“Many startup leaders, especially those from India, have academic training but minimal business experience”

At AIC-CCMB, we believe in being future ready. Our Box 3 initiatives like the Centre for Predictive Human Model Systems (CPHMS) focuses on popularising human relevant toxicology models. In fact, we have recently concluded the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) lecture course on “Microphysiological systems: Advances and applications in human-relevant research” which was well received by the science community as well as industry. Similarly, we have robust bioinformatics, molecular and genomic diagnostic expertise.
Recently, we have established a Conservation Science and Innovation Lab in University of Kashmir, Srinagar, J&K with the support of Rural Electrification Corporation Limited (RECL) for a biodiversity and wildlife conservation lab in Kashmir. We plan to grow our network by making strategic partnerships with businesses, public and international organizations, and academic institutions.
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How many startups have you incubated up to 2022, and which facilities are offered to them? 
We have incubated 80+ startups till now across different verticals like medical technology, agriculture, healthcare, bioenergy, etc. We are hosting 26 physical startups, and more than 10 are associated with us virtually. We have foster 13 innovations by our fellows and EiRs social entrepreneurship and ICT in healthcare, and we are happy to report all progressing well.
The AIC-CCMB offers several training and workshops to entrepreneurs and their employees as part of its incubation programme. Our flagship programmes like Café Mandala, a knowledge sharing and networking event and Dagar workshops are tailored to meet necessities of our community.
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Which are the key focus areas of innovation at AIC-CCMB within biotech, healthcare and agriculture? Any product innovations or patent outcomes?
Startups in our incubator are working on biosimilars, medtech, diagnostic kits, stem cell therapies, CarT cell therapies, mAB manufacturing, milk protein fermentation, mRNA platforms, controlled drug release, precision medicine and poultry vaccines. Our startups have generated more than 29 patents, raised over Rs 100 crores in funding and over 50 Lakhs in revenue through the work done in this incubator.
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Any programs that have been developed in partnerships with the industry? How do you plan to create better industry-oriented student fellowships? 
AIC-CCMB focused on evolving from an incubation centre to an innovation centre. We conduct roundtables, discussions and a lot of industry interactions to understand the requirements of industries. Programs like CRTDH, CPHMS and NGS constantly engage industries with us, especially for new product development. A number of established MSEs seek our help in conducting validation studies for processes as well as products.

“Becoming an entrepreneur is a thrilling experience. It allows using their creativity and harnessing their potential to address specific challenges”

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What do you consider as crucial achievements of AIC-CCMB in the last 5 years? Any case studies or unique examples that you would like to mention?
Every graduation is an achievement for us. The path of entrepreneurship is not easy, especially in life-sciences, so we are very proud to have supported several startups at AIC-CCMB to become the sustainable business of tomorrow., But a notable achievement that is dear to us is working towards COVID-19 efforts. A number of our startups developed ICMR-approved, indigenous diagnostic technologies, and we facilitated the validation of more than 30 COVID-19 kits. AIC-CCMB was working on an “mRNA platform for Vaccines and Biotherapeutics”. The objective of this project was to indigenously develop an mRNA vaccine platform against SARS-CoV2 in collaboration with other CSIR institutes.
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Your comments on the startup ecosystem in India? What are the challenges in terms of funding and collaboration besides untapped opportunities? 
The Indian startup ecosystem has evolved dynamically over the last two decades. Many startup leaders, especially those from India, have academic training but minimal business experience. It is not necessary to do everything yourself, incubators like us are equipped to provide all types of business support. Initially, many firms are “bootstrapped” or funded entirely by the founders themselves from personal savings or investments from family and friends. startups need outside funding to get off the ground, and many start seeking investors at some point. Finding the proper investor and obtaining capital can be challenging, even if the product has been well accepted and there is some evidence of market validation.
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What is your message for young and aspiring startups? Any Do’s and Don’ts for them? 
Becoming an entrepreneur is a thrilling experience. It allows using their creativity and harnessing their potential to address specific challenges and create a more significant impact. But this entrepreneurial journey is not risk-free. There is no fool proof way to eliminate the dangers of starting a business, but there are measures that may be taken to lessen the blow.
Working in an ecosystem is more effective than striking out on one’s own. Many entrepreneurs have found that joining an established startup ecosystem has facilitated the successful launch of their startups. Being associated with an incubator can be the ideal steppingstone from concept to reality.

**This interview was first published in ‘December 2022’ issue of BioVoice eMagazine.